Saturday, August 5

On the Topic of France

France is a complicated place. Unbathed people sit around, perhaps in a café, wearing berets and white and black striped shirts while sipping wine, eating cheese, and smoking or painting while incessant accordion music drifts in through the window from which the Eiffel Tower and all the little white flags can be seen. Oh, and don't be out after dark: that's when the mimes come out.

Obviously, not really. I learned a lot about France and Europe this summer. (And I'm not saying that this was what I thought France was like before I went.) First of all, all in all, the French are not all that different from us. Mainly, they dress better, smoke more, don't pick up after their unleashed dogs, number their floors differently, pee on the street (which really isn't that bad of an idea), take two hour lunches, and the easiest way to say it would be that they put an emphasis on different things.

Although it seems like they're a few decades behind us in that very few people have driers and air conditioning, I think they're really just being smarter. To combat the heat, pretty much every window in France has big shutters or shutters that roll down like the door a store in a mall would have. The shutters are on the outside of the windows and they keep them closed tight during the day, especially when the window is in direct sun light. Then at night when the air is cooler, they can be opened. Doing that manages to keep the interior cool without using any energy.

Another thing different about France is the way they eat. For breakfast, they nibble on a croissant with jam, butter, honey, or chocolate. For lunch they have their big meal with their family and for dinner they eat something small. They put a huge importance on having a pleasant and relaxing lunch; people go home, kids return home from school and in Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, even the banks close for an hour in the afternoon. It would seem that a quick lunch would be at least an hour. Normally when we ate at real restaurants on trips, lunch was at least 2 hours sometimes 2 and a half. I was told by some of the French students that the length increases as the fanciness does; really fancy meals regularly take more than 3 hours.

At least for me, at first it seemed to vex me that we'd spend that much time to ingest food, but it's not so bad with good company and when you know it's coming. We all mastered the art of silverware; at least as much as we'll ever need in the U.S. Start on the outside and work in and the waiter indicates whether you should hang on to your silverware for the next course or not when he removes your plate. Also, when you first sit down, by looking at the silverware, you can tell how much is coming so you know to pace yourself. Being full works differently when it's spread out over time. French meals are pretty structured in contrast to American meals where everything is sitting out and it's 'dig in' style.

I actually like having the big meal in the middle and I think I'll experiment with that this fall. Taking long meals fits into the French way of life. It seems to me that they put emphasis on enjoying and savoring it a lot more than we do. Whereas we swear and give salutes when the traffic doesn't move fast enough to our jobs, the French close down for lunch.

Things are quite casual. Especially in the southern part of France. When something goes wrong, I think they just go with the flow. When we first arrived, they didn't seem to realize that students in two college classes and professors would need a printer. Don't worry, be happy. And eventually, we had access to one in the lab. The professors, on the other hand, went to Auchan and actually bought a printer for their office. Another thing, is that things, well, just kind of get done. And although, something may be scheduled for a specific time, that's really just a general timeframe kind of thing, the bus will leave…eventually. And, a full bus just pulled up with two different groups of college students to your facility. Although they're late, you really haven’t even thought about what to show them. Don't worry, it'll get done.

They have a 35 hour work week. I, to be honest with you, quite frankly (and I don't mean to insult anyone) but I don't know how they manage to be the world's fifth largest economy after the US, Japan, German, and the UK. Some other people and I weren't able to figure out how their economy worked. Obviously, they have some places like Airbus that hire lots of people and there were some industrial parks, but other than that we didn't really see big businesses, especially outside of Paris. It seems to me that their economy runs in little cycles, for example: people work in little shops, then they go home and need to go to other little shops to buy stuff, they, needing to get somewhere, then keep the bus driver employed who also needs to go to a little shop to buy stuff. Also there are little, side cycles like one Dave and I observed in Madrid: there are people standing on the corners giving out little fliers or ads to people (on their way to the little shops) who try to discard them immediately, filling garbage cans or littering the ground, so the city then needs to hire people to pick up the litter and empty the garbage cans. They then turn around and go shopping at the little shops.

Now, I'm probably wrong, but it seems that their entire economy runs on little shops. By the way, every other little shop is usually playing music by either the Red Hot Chilly Peppers, Ricky Martin, or Shakiera. The 'little shop system' seems to not be the perfect system. Whereas our employment is in the 5%'s, in France, it's up over 10%, I saw a statistic saying that for young people it was nearly a quarter! They have high unemployment and pay very high taxes. That seems to be the trend in Europe (where they've got socialist tendencies, but that's a different story).

Something I noticed and it may be the missing part of their economy is that there was not a single mime. Call me crazy, but I suspect that Jacques Chicaq may have had them all rounded up and secretly terminated. The closest I came to seeing a mime in two months and eight countries was while waiting in line to climb Notre Dame, in Paris. Across the street there was a guy, he had the mime shirt on but wasn't dressed up like one or had mime makeup but he was miming. A lady walked past him and she stole his heart. She must have been good because she totally didn't even act like she just had. It then broke so she played cool and kept on walking. Then he fixed it and put it back in and sewed it up. Alas! He was speaking so it didn't count. Anyway, perhaps instead of eliminating all of the mimes, Jacques put them to work in a secret slave labor type place and that's what keeps their economy puttering along.

One thing for which you must prepare yourself is the language. I, already with a pretty good knowledge of Spanish, some basic German, and mastery of English, knowed that I wasn't going to squeeze in anymore language. The first time I interacted with a French speaker was at McDonalds across the street from the train station in Montpellier, I think it was. (We had been on a train all day so we wanted something easy and fast) I told the lady "Big Mac, frit, ice tea" and she uttered a string of vowels and crazy sounds at me. John had to complete the transaction for me to my embarrassment. You know, something else I learned, besides the fact that I don't really speak Spanish too well, is that I freak out when someone speaks to me in a different language, or English after being in a different language for two months. Although I think I learned a basic amount of French, enough to travel, I would have liked to speak more. The most difficult and embarrassing feeling, at least for me, is trying to communicate to someone when our language capabilities are mutually exclusive.

The French really like their French, which makes it a little difficult for a non-speaker. I say 'go French!' (allez le France), because they think their language and culture is the best so that's the only one they need to do. Outside of large businesses and other places with educated people, they don't speak English, or Spanish (I tried and it worked once) which is completely different than some places, like Germany for example. In Germany, an overwhelming majority seem to speak English, even more so in the cities than in the country. It was strange because in Germany, the ads in stores' windows would be a phrase in German with a random English word. Even in company and store names, there'd be a random English word, but I mean it would fit in with the rest of the message. It's pretty strange to see one's own language used as marketing like that. Even signs for the most part in Germany were first in German and then in English, which is different, coming from the US where if anything it's in English and then some Spanish.

All in all, especially in the cities, going to a restaurant isn't too hard because most places have a menu in English, indicated by the little Union Jack. All the museums and attractions have maps and brochures in a multitude of languages. The Palacio Real, Royal Palace, in Madrid gives tours in Spanish or English, for example. As a matter of fact, in Madrid, their second language is English, so it's strange to see the signs inverted from the US. As I said before, Germany speaks English well; also Austria has English second and Italian third. Switzerland is a little different because, as you may know, the Swiss speak German, French, and Italian in different parts of their country so English comes fourth. We were in the German part and they spoke English, too. In fact, to not favor one group over the other two, their official language is Latin as so if you've ever wondered why their abbreviation is 'CH' it's because their official name is 'Confoederatio Helvetica'. France speaks pretty much only French, although in Nice they did English and Italian. In Spain, in the area we entered, they had Basque in addition to Spanish and French. Monaco speaks its own language in addition to French, English, and Italian. In the casino, the tables were operating in French, but people were speaking English. In London, they speak a little of everything, but it's all English everywhere else in England.

With the exception of Switzerland and the UK, they all used the Euro. It seemed strange at first to be holding colorful money with generic European pictures, a little like monopoly, but it grows on you. I miss the 1 and 2 euro coins but I don't miss the 2 cent coins. I can do the paper money, but the coins got weird. They have 8 different coins: .01, .02, .05, .10, .20, .50, 1, and 2. We just have the penny, nickel, dime, and quarter in regular use. As I said, I liked the 1 and 2 coins because you could just keep a couple in your pocket and not have to worry when you head out. Also you don't have to pull out your wallet just to get a 1. I don't get why they had so many, though. Whereas we have the couple of cups in the cash register, they have an entire plastic holding board to hold all the different kinds of coins, and it would stink when they'd run out of big coins so you got a pocket full of .20's and .05's. Why the .20? They could kill two birds with one stone by using a quarter, and then they wouldn't need the .50. Oh well, it must keep the mint people employed so they can go spent their .20's in the little shops.

Another thing that's a little strange about continental Europe is their whole bathroom scheme. See, you must pay to use the bathroom and there's a person there watching to make sure. Ranging from a little donation plate to .50 at train stations, with your coins you must make their platter jingle to take a tinkle. In most places, you had to pay the cover charge to get in, but once there it was a bathroom buffet. In some places, you had to pay the attendant to gain access to the toilet paper. Businesses are stingy about the use of their 'toilet' or 'WC', not 'bathroom' or 'restroom' (don't call it that or the Brits will laugh at you). One of the weird things about returning home was noticing how much water was there waiting for you in the bowl. In Europe, there's just a little and with some toilets you get your choice of a big flush or a little flush, which actually makes a lot of sense to save water. But the cost savings of the water seem to be watered down, if you will, by having to hire an attendant. Although, I guess people on their way to the little stores need to stop and go to the bathroom, which employs a person who needs to eventually to the little stores himself. Regardless of the money, it still sounds like a crappy job to me.

Something else I noticed was that they like to fly the EU flag in France. In Germany, Austria, and Spain they only had one or two in the main cities, but all over the place in France, there'd be an EU flag keeping the French flag company, even flying at the same height. Perhaps the French see the EU as a good thing because they and Germany dominate it whereas in other countries they're not so gung-ho about it. England for example, although a member, stays on the fringes and hasn't given up its Pound Sterling to the Euro yet. (England should stick with us and the rest of the English countries. That's what Churchill said in speeches after WWII, but that's another post) And I'm all for Switzerland holding out completely. One country called 'Europe' would be a little creepy. I'm not quite sure how the French see it, but my instincts would tell me to fly the French flag higher than any other while in France, similar to how the Stars and Stripes rides higher than the states' flags.

Also, they do, in fact, have and use deodorant in France. Although in commercials, they have to show people how to use it. They really don't smell at all. I only encountered one or two smelly people. When going to Europe one thing you'll have to get used to is the smell of smoke. It was rather hard for me, coming from Madison, where it's illegal to smoke inside, and probably everywhere else by now. Right away when we landed in Frankfurt the thing I noticed after them sprecking ze Deutsch was the smell of smoke, in the airport. The other thing is peeing on the streets. What else can they do when they're forced to pay to use the toilet? Well, most of the time, it isn't out in the middle of the streets, usually in a corner and after dark. Also it's quite easy to do because all the buildings in France are next to each other so there are many concave corners, whereas it'd be hard to do in America because all of the buildings have spaces between them. It seemed like France rules applied in Madrid, but whatever you do don't do it in England, they have the same law system as we do.

One final thing—it's getting late—is that there are a lot more trains and train riding in Europe, not to bring back bad memories from the EPD class this summer where I did research on France's high speed train the TGV. I foresee a backup newspaper article from it, perhaps. The TGV goes up to 200 mph on commercial service. It was rather interesting to see people treat trains as a real mode of transportation. I, myself, like them better than flying because one can get up and walk around and they are much more casual, one just walks in off the street and sits down and within five minutes is heading toward the next city. Also, it was different to see people sad and hugging loved ones as they got on the train to leave. I was thinking, "it's just a train" but they use it to get places. The parties involved would then watch each other through the window and wave as the train pulls away. If you go to Europe and plan on getting around, get a rail pass. I calculated it before we left and we did more than $1200 worth of travel for about $450. MAJOR HINT: In France they don't check rail passes or tickets at least 80% of the time. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more.

Well, that's my preliminary observations about France. I'll probably think of more stuff to write about and I don't have a shortage of photos so there's more stuff to come around the mountain when it does. In the meantime, thanks for reading my writing this summer, and if you have any questions about traveling or Europe or both leave a comment or let me know.


Gun InMyMouth said...

perhaps i should move to France, maybe i would fit in there

Mark Murphy said...

Interesting post!